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Mel Tucker kick-started a college football contract surge, and Jim Harbaugh got left out

MLive Ann Arbor logo MLive Ann Arbor 8/10/2022 Matt Wenzel, Aaron McMann, mlive.com
Michigan State's Mel Tucker is now one of college football's highest paid coaches, a distinction Michigan's Jim Harbaugh used to have. © mlive.com/TNS Michigan State's Mel Tucker is now one of college football's highest paid coaches, a distinction Michigan's Jim Harbaugh used to have.

“I am told that there are some very influential people inside LSU who are really, really high on Mel Tucker.”

One of college football’s top jobs was just about to open and FOX’s Bruce Feldman reported Michigan State’s head coach was being bandied about as the replacement.

Mel Tucker had Michigan State off to a 7-0 start, and ties to Baton Rouge. That October weekend, Ed Orgeron was dismissed by LSU and, within a month, Tucker became the Spartans’ $95 million dollar man.

The chain reaction reverberated across the sport.

LSU promised Brian Kelly $100 million over 10 years and he bolted a Notre Dame team still in playoff contention. Ten years and $80 million for Mario Cristobal to leave Oregon for Miami, while James Franklin landed a 10-year, $75 million extension just to stay at Penn State. Private school USC certainly threw a boatload of cash at Lincoln Riley, but all are now looking up at Kirby Smart. Just last month, the Georgia coach agreed to a new 10-year deal with an average annual salary of over $11 million.

Boards of Trustees at Power Five schools are forking over millions to keep up in the arms race that is the billion-dollar business of college football.

“They just literally lose rational thought,” said Richard Southall, a professor and the director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. “It’s not irrational but it’s not rational either.”

Rivalry wins, conference championships, bowl games and playoff appearances. All easily can be justification for huge contracts, from the school’s perspective. There’s also competition within it all. Not surprisingly, Tucker sitting alone top the Big Ten salary list didn’t even last an entire offseason. Ohio State’s Ryan Day, with his 34-4 career record, signed an extension in May.

But over in Ann Arbor, Jim Harbaugh had just taken a big pay cut before the 2021 season. And despite leading Michigan to a Big Ten championship and the College Football Playoff, the coach who was once the sport’s highest paid no longer has a seat amongst the top 10.

Tucker’s new deal ‘a game-changer’

Just 21 months into his Michigan State tenure, Tucker’s contract was torn up for a new one.

The Spartans were just 2-5 in the pandemic-altered 2020 season and had massive roster turnover via the transfer portal but were one of the nation’s surprise teams in 2021. That included a second win for Tucker over Michigan, the first time in Michigan State’s program history a new coach had started 2-0 against the rival Wolverines.

The $95 million contract, which is fully guaranteed, is the third largest ever given to a college football coach by a public university, behind Smart at Georgia ($112.5 million) and Kelly at LSU. The $9.5 million annual salary for 2022 ties Tucker with Kelly and Day for No. 3 nationally behind Smart ($10.25 million) and Alabama’s Nick Saban ($9.9 million), who has won six national championships.

“He’s got a good agent,” Southall said of Tucker, who is represented by Neil Cornrich. “And who want to be the AD that lets him go? Nobody has any incentive. Fans are so adamant that it’s almost a badge of honor that Michigan State has to pay its coach near what Michigan (does) or more than Michigan.”

Cornrich didn’t respond to an interview request from MLive for this story.

Life moves fast. Tucker was coming off his first season as a head coach at Colorado when Michigan State hired him to replace the recently-retired Mark Dantonio. Tucker’s initial annual salary ($5.5 million) was $1.2 million more than Dantonio, the program’s all-time winningest coach, made in his final season.

After Michigan State’s Board of Trustees officially approved Tucker’s contract on Dec. 17, university president Samuel Stanley lauded Tucker’s rapid turnaround to an 11-2 2021 season and top-10 national ranking. He also cited the “unprecedented increases in alumni and fan support, donor support.”

“I think that it’s a game-changer,” said Tywan Martin, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology and sports sciences at the University of Miami. “I think that (the contract) expresses and shows Michigan State’s level of commitment, their willingness to make sure that they secure a talented African American coach in this case. I think that this helps to put Michigan State in the national spotlight when you make a huge commitment like this. For it to be someone who is from a community that has been historically underserved and not given opportunities to lead a major Power Five program like Michigan State, I think it takes a lot of commitment, a lot of courage.”

Tucker’s deal at Michigan State is funded in part by a pair of wealthy alumni, Mat Ishbia and Steve St. Andre. It’s unclear how much they contributed, but they were instrumental in making the contract happen at a time in which Tucker was one of the hottest coaches in the nation and rumored to be drawing interest for other jobs.

Michigan State in February 2021 announced a $32 million donation from Ishbia to athletics – the largest single cash commitment from an individual donor in university history – with $20 million earmarked for renovating the football facilities. In November, the university revealed a $10 million donation from Greg and Dawn Williams for the project.

Martin believes private donors funding a contract extension is all “value-add,” especially for a Michigan State athletic department that has a self-sustaining budget. He noted how success in sports can benefit the entire university through a surge in applications and the ability to be even more selective in which students are accepted.

“As great as many programs are at Michigan State, I know that there are a lot of wonderful academic programs, they do not get the attention of what football gets every Saturday in the fall,” Martin said. “They’re not on TV, they’re not running up and down the field. It is probably the biggest marketing arm for the university. As a result, you have someone in place to help lead that marketing campaign, that being the head coach.”

Harbaugh: From top dog to out of Top 10

In December 2014, Harbaugh was the right person at the perfect time to help resurrect Michigan’s football program, and the school paid him handsomely for it. A seven-year, $40 million contract that included a $2 million signing bonus and promise of a deferred compensation package.

Right away in 2015, Harbaugh was college football’s highest-paid coach.

Michigan later tacked on a $2 million-per-year life insurance policy Harbaugh could withdraw from. It effectively made him a $7 million-per-year coach, keeping him near the top of the coaches salary list for his first couple of seasons. He ultimately topped out north of $8 million in 2019.

“Everyone compares themselves to others, and it’s the high-dollar ones everyone benchmarks,” says law professor Matt Mitten, executive director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University. “If Nick Saban is making X amount and he’s the best coach, and I’m No. 5, I should be at least here. There’s always a little bit of ego involved when you get to that level.”

Even before fall 2020, Harbaugh’s ego had taken a bit of a hit. No Big Ten championship trophies or wins over rival Ohio State. Then then worst season of his tenure – a 2-4 record, a team was ravaged by injuries and canceled game against the Buckeyes that likely averted further disaster.

Harbaugh cleaned house, hiring a new defensive coordinator and five new assistants, and later signed a five-year contract extension packed with incentives but only guaranteeing $4 million per year. It was a massive pay cut. If Harbaugh wanted to recoup the money he lost, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel subtly declared, he needed to deliver results.

The Wolverines, in perhaps one of the more improbable seasons in recent history, did just that. Michigan pounded its way to a 7-0 start in 2021 and finished the regular season 11-1 after a euphoric win over Ohio State.

During the lead up to Michigan’s Orange Bowl game against Georgia, Harbaugh was asked about the pay cut and his subsequent decision to donate bonus money earned back to athletic department employees impacted during the pandemic. “It’s just money,” he said.

The comments drew plenty of headlines and left one to wonder if Harbaugh had lost some leverage despite Michigan winning the Big Ten and being in the College Football Playoff.

A pay raise came in February following an NFL flirtation, as Harbaugh signed a new five-year, $36 million deal. That restored him to his $7 million-per-year figure but nowhere near that old No. 1 spot. Harbaugh, who does not have an agent and represents himself, is now behind the likes of Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin in annual salary.

“New coaches, up-and-coming coaches, this that, they find out what this agent got for his client,” Southall said. “There’s not a lot of them and they’re the ones that set the market. The presidents and the athletic director are not trained negotiators.”

Surviving in a competitive market

More than seven years after he returned to Ann Arbor, Harbaugh finds himself in a college football coaching world more lucrative than ever before. The reason? It’s three-pronged, says Rodney Fort, professor of sport management at the University of Michigan.

“What they are doing is going up in value,” Fort said. “Competition makes (coaches) extremely mobile, and that mobility also means that they get it because they share the excess value that athletes create. And that adds up to lots and lots of money.”

Although the amount being committed by universities is increasing, long-term deals aren’t new.

Just seven games into his tenure at Notre Dame, coach Charlie Weis signed a 10-year extension in 2005 but was fired four years later. Clemson gave coach Dabo Swinney a 10-year, $93 million extension in 2019, but that was a decade into leading the program and winning two national titles. Texas A&M used a 10-year, $75 million contract to pull Jimbo Fisher away from Florida State in 2017 and on the eve of the 2021 season added four years to the deal and increased to value to $94 million.

Although COVID-19 wreaked havoc on athletic department budgets across the nation, lucrative TV contracts still funnel millions to universities. The Big Ten’s media rights deal runs through 2022-23 and the conference could net at least $1 billion a year on the next package, according to a report by Sports Business Journal. With even more money flooding the market, it seems unlikely coaching salaries are going to be scaled back anytime soon.

Tucker’s fully guaranteed deal at Michigan State runs through the 2031 season. Harbaugh’s now signed through 2026. But those are just numbers, and contracts are torn up every offseason. For those keeping score, this is a different type of contest.

“There’s a reason why Monopoly is still a popular boardgame,” Southall said, “because everybody loves playing with money.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit mlive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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